This profound and disturbing true-crime show lays bare the case’s outrageous misogyny – and lets silenced women be heard at last.
Over the course of three nights, the film-maker Liza Williams is revisiting one of the biggest – and longest – murder manhunts in British history. The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story (BBC Four) takes us back to a time so different it seems almost foreign, and yet close enough that a fair number of witnesses are still around to tell the story.
Beginning in 1975, Peter Sutcliffe murdered 13 women in brutal slayings committed with hammers and screwdrivers. He attacked at least eight more who survived, but a stunningly mishandled police investigation meant he remained at large for six years.
It was not a simple matter of incompetence – dogged police work dragged Sutcliffe into the frame repeatedly: over the years, he was interviewed no fewer than nine times in connection with the killings, and released each time. Instead, as Williams’ films amply demonstrate, a pervasive atmosphere of misogyny so clouded the thinking of lead investigators that they repeatedly leapt to the wrong conclusions.
From the outset, with the discovery of the body of Wilma McCann in the Chapeltown area of Leeds, police were convinced that the man who would become known as the Yorkshire Ripper was on a murderous crusade against sex workers. Victims who didn’t fit that profile were either disregarded, treated as mistakes on the killer’s part or categorised as women of “doubtful moral character”.
Meanwhile, George Oldfield, West Yorkshire police’s assistant chief constable, remained convinced of the validity of a hoax tape, purported to come from the killer, precisely because it fit this narrative. The voice on the tape – known as Wearside Jack because of his strong Sunderland accent – became the focus of the investigation, and countless hours were wasted trying to trace the wrong person.
By the start of the final instalment, Sutcliffe had been apprehended thanks to what one officer called “straightforward coppering”, which is to say he was stopped for other reasons and then confessed. But the revelation that the police had got it badly wrong did not lead to any immediate soul-searching. Sutcliffe’s defence team claimed he heard voices telling him to kill sex workers – a narrative the prosecution was wholly ready to accept. “It’s almost as if, at the time, it was seen as an understandable motive,” says Williams.
In a speech at the trial, the attorney general at the time, Sir Michael Havers, said of the victims: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.” That statement was outrageous enough back then that Nina Lopez of the English Collective of Prostitutes, which organised protests outside the Old Bailey, can still quote it verbatim. Sir Harry Ognall, who was on the prosecuting team, maintains that Havers was “certainly not a misogynist”. The way he pronounces it – MY-sogynist – suggests it’s not a word he says out loud very often.
At its best, Williams’ series – with its mixture of archive footage and new interviews – is a social document. The hindsight it offers is not primarily about the mishandling of the investigation, but of the grim tone of the times, and the suggestion that Sutcliffe’s crimes were linked to a more general undercurrent of violence against women in northern England. Back then, the caricature of the Ripper was invoked in football chants, for laughs. Sexual harassment increased in Yorkshire while Sutcliffe remained at large; women were subject to curfews, and those walking on their own at night were the targets of taunts and threats.
Above all else, The Yorkshire Ripper Files provides a profound and deeply disturbing testament to the consequences of women not being heard. Tracy Browne survived a hammer attack when she was just 14, months before the murder of McCann. She provided police with an efit that bore a striking resemblance to Sutcliffe, and she knew that her attacker was local, and not from Sunderland. Her evidence was ignored. Sutcliffe was never prosecuted for attacking her, although he has subsequently confessed to it. In one chilling scene, Browne, now in her mid-50s, listens to a tape of Sutcliffe describing the attack with self-serving inaccuracy. “He’s blaming me, for what he did to me,” she says.
One figure wholly absent from this account is John Humble, the man who eventually went to jail for making the Wearside Jack tape. Perhaps his is another story. Or perhaps it’s all part of the same one.